Reviews: Mind Playing Tricks On Me by Geto Boys

Mind Playing Tricks On Me is directly about paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, and schizophrenia, and it’s indirectly a commentary on the structures that cause those psychoses. It’s the best examination of mental health as it relates to rap. It was also the first.

In 1990, Geffen Records, the company that was going to distribute a remix album by the Geto Boys called The Geto Boys, decided the night before the album’s release not to go forward. This is the explanation Bryn Bridenthal, who was the vice president of media and artist relations at the time, offered:

“I’ve never been frightened by a record before in my life, but for me the graphic details of the violence were really frightening. Finally we decided that we have a right as a private company to decide what kind of materials we want to be associated with, and this one, we decided, went too far.”

His comments were somewhat focused on a song called “Assassins,” which opens with Johnny C, a producer and ex–Geto Boys member, rapping about beating and then shooting a schoolteacher. 

But mostly he was talking about “Mind of a Lunatic,” a six-verse nightmare starring Bushwick Bill, Scarface, and Willie D, the lineup that would eventually constitute the most substantial version of the Geto Boys. Bushwick Bill, a Jamaican-born dwarf, is the first performer, and he lasts exactly three lines into the song before he’s committed murder. The violence somehow increases exponentially from there; he spends the whole second verse talking about raping a woman he’s seen through a window, murdering her, raping her corpse, then drawing his name on the wall and calling the cops on himself. 

And beyond just stating the particulars of his crimes, he presents them through some truly startling imagery (“She begged me not to kill her, I gave her a rose / Then slit her throat, and watched her shake till her eyes closed”). I can’t say that I agree with Geffen’s decision, but this was near the same time 2 Live Crew had been charged for indecency while performing some of their songs in a nightclub in Florida and Judas Priest had been blamed for the suicides of two men by their families, so I suppose I understand.

This whole thing—the controversy, Geffen Records refusing to release the album because the lyrics were so violent and threatening—was the first real exposure to the Geto Boys people outside of Houston had had en masse.

“Mind of a Lunatic” is a precursor to “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.” It spoke of the particular psychoses each member of the group was dealing with, though it did so at the expense of sophistication. “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” angled the general idea of “Lunatic” (we are crazy motherfuckers) inward, making it less about the consequences they ascribed to insanity and more about the process of feeling insane. 

The self-examination was markedly more powerful than the hyperbolized violence. It was a completely new thing, and it was real and serious and real serious. It seemed unlikely that Bushwick Bill would ever have sex with a dead body and then draw his name across the wall for the police like he said he had on “Lunatic,” but it was completely plausible he’d gotten into a fight with a person who didn’t even really exist like he said he had on “Tricks.”

“Mind Playing Tricks on Me” samples a song called “Hung Up on My Baby” by Isaac Hayes. The song appeared in a 1974 movie called Three Tough Guys starring Isaac Hayes. There are a lot of very amazing parts in Three Tough Guys. 

One of them is a funeral scene for a pimp named Gator. As the funeral guests take turns viewing Gator’s corpse, other pimps, the most spectacular of whom is a white man with pork chop sideburns wearing a jeweled eye patch and a bedazzled suit jacket, sprinkle cocaine on him. 

I suspect this is a way that pimps pay respect at funerals, but I’m not sure. I’ve never (knowingly) spent time with a pimp, so I’ve never been privy to that information. I Googled “Sprinkle Cocaine on Dead Bodies” but didn’t find anything pimp-related.

One of the other pimps who shows up to the funeral —a rival pimp in a garish white fur coat holding a cane and a purple hat— spits on Gator. So I guess the good thing about inviting pimps to your funeral is that they will be dressed interestingly, but the bad thing is that they will either sprinkle cocaine on you or spit on you.

OTHER SONGS THAT HAVE DEALT WITH BEING A NUT, DIRECTLY AND INDIRECTLY

“Somebody’s Watching Me,” Rockwell (1983): He thought people were watching him.

“The City Sleeps,” MC 900 Ft Jesus (1991): This one is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of an arsonist. It’s not that good of a song, but I’m including it here because we don’t have any other arsonists on this list and I don’t want to appear like I’m anti-arsonist, which I assume will be a hot topic by the time this book comes out because people get mad about everything so it’s only a matter of time before someone starts talking about arson discrimination.

“Insane in the Brain,” Cypress Hill (1993): It kind of feels like Cypress Hill maybe didn’t know exactly what a membrane was.

“Suicidal Thoughts,” The Notorious B.I.G. (1994): Biggie calls Puff, admits he is overcome with stress and is considering suicide, then talks himself into doing it.

“1-800-Suicide,” Gravediggaz (1994): 1994 was a big year for suicide, I guess. (One of the ways the Gravediggaz say you can tell you’re an insane person is if you’re Sicilian but you don’t like lasagna or the guy who delivers your pizza. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of either of those claims.)

“Beautiful Night,” Prince Paul (1996): This is Prince Paul in a therapy session admitting to sexually assaulting a girl, killing a bartender who refused to serve him because he was black, then killing a guy at a Beastie Boys concert who’d bumped into him, then sexually assaulting another girl with his friends. Paul is so casual in his description of the depravity that he somehow makes it enjoyable to hum “It’s a beautiful night for a date rape” with the background singers.

“Kim,” Eminem (2000): By 2014, Eminem’s turmoil had grown a chore to absorb. (It was uncreatively offensive, and that’s way worse than being morally offensive.) But when he let it bloom fully in 2000 on “Kim,” it was completely transfixing.

“Dance with the Devil,” Immortal Technique (2001): The protagonist violently assaults and rapes a stranger with some other men as a way to prove he’s tough and respectable. Turns out, the stranger was his mother. He kills himself by jumping off the roof of a building after he sees who it was. The guys shoot the mom in the head. Eesh.

“Lemonade,” Gucci Mane (2009): It doesn’t deal with any slivers of mental instability directly, but, I’m saying, you kind of have to be crazy to make a song as perfect as “Lemonade” is.

“Devil’s Son,” Big L (2010): Spends the whole song talking about being the son of the devil. When he said, “When I was in pre-school I beat a kid to death with a wooden block,” that’s when I knew I wasn’t putting my kids in day care.

“What’s Yo Psycho?” Tech N9ne, featuring Brotha Lynch Hung and Sundae (2010): The three take turns explaining their psychoses. In the third verse, Sundae explains, “It’s dollars over dick,” and that’s the best summation of a business plan I ever heard.

The most famous picture of Scarface + Bushwick Bill + Willie D is the one used for the cover of 1991’s We Can’t Be Stopped, where Willie D and Scarface are pushing Bushwick Bill down a hospital hallway on a gurney. Willie D, the most physically imposing member of the group, looks slightly angry but also slightly urgent. Scarface, who later would explain that he had no interest in capturing that particular moment on film and certainly no interest in using it for the cover of their album, looks discordant and disgusted. 

And Bushwick, who is sitting on the gurney pretending to be on a cell phone, looks like he’s just been shot in the face at close range with a.22-caliber derringer because he had just been shot in the face at close range with a .22-caliber derringer. His right eye, which hours earlier had been fine, is completely destroyed. It looks like a very unappetizing strawberry. This is the explanation Bush-wick gave of the incident in a radio interview later that year:

“When I came home, my girl was asleep so I woke her up and told her to kill me ’cause I wanted to die. I was tired of my life. She said she didn’t want to shoot me, so I shot at her and my [adopted] three-month-old baby first. Then I tried to beat her head in with a vacuum cleaner, but I missed. Then I gave her the gun and jumped at her. When I [saw] her hand reach the trigger I put my eye in front of it.”

He did an interview on the Howard Stern show later, and his story expanded a bit. He explained that the reason he wanted to die was financially inspired: His mother needed money to pay a medical bill, he said, and, despite the success of “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” he didn’t have the $500 she needed him to give her. He’d hoped that by getting himself killed she’d benefit from his life insurance policy. 

But he didn’t want to be at odds with God, and suicide, he’d learned in Bible school, is an unpardonable sin, so he got very drunk and tried to goad his then-girlfriend into murdering him. He also explained to Stern that he’d picked up the baby and threatened to throw him out a window if she didn’t shoot him.

This is the sort of thinking that surrounded the Geto Boys when they were at their apex, and that’s how you end up with a song as masterfully conspired and executed as “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” the finest examination of one’s own psychoses in rap, and in all of music, really.

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